The Tattoo Quiz

By: Torrance Grey
Image: Kymberlie Dozois Photography / Image Source / Getty Images

About This Quiz

The practice of tattooing is likely as old as humankind. Tattoos have been found on the bodies of Egyptian mummies, for example. Given the age of this practice, it's not surprising that tattoos have come to mean a variety of different things. Historically, they can represent rank or status in the member of a tribe, or a specific role in a clan (e.g., shaman). Some peoples created tattoos to memorialize their dead, and other early cultures believed that tattoos provided protection from evil.  Later, tattoos came to symbolize belonging: to a specific Army unit, for example, or criminal gang. Perhaps most recent is the secular, Western view ... that tattoos are simply a good way to express individual personality. 

The practice of tattooing, though, comes with baggage. In many parts of the world, including America, they have long been associated with blue-collar status, lack of education, antisocial behavior and even crime. To be fair, this is because tattoos were first adopted in the West by working-class sailors, then by bikers. However, as early as the 1920s, Winston Churchill's American mother, Jennie Jerome, had a tattoo of a snake around her wrist. Daring! 

Tattoos carry some risk, as well. You might know that you should seek out a clean shop and an artist who is currently on his or her bloodborne-pathogen certification. But what many people don't realize is that tattoo ink itself is far less regulated, with inks being found to contain heavy metals and even carcinogens!

Despite the drawbacks, tattooing is never going to die out, so why not be educated about this fascinating human art? We've got a quiz to help you sort out the truth from the misconceptions — and unlike actually getting tattooed, there's no aftercare!


What is a "sleeve"?

A sleeve often goes from shoulder to wrist; the hand is often left un-tattooed. Less often, the term is used to refer to a design that covers the whole leg, even though "sleeves," in the sense of clothing, only cover arms, not legs.

In modern, Western culture, which group was the first to take to tattooing in a big way?

The link here is to Polynesia and the voyages of Captain James Cook. British sailors were exposed to and liked the islanders' tattoos, and began to imitate them. Before long, port cities became hotbeds of tattooing — if you wanted one but lived inland, you'd have to travel to a coast.

Tattooing is part of which larger field?

Tattoo artists and tattoo enthusiasts are part of the larger community, or subculture, of body modification. Other forms of body modification include piercing, tooth blackening and neck stretching, that last one accomplished by multiple choker-like rings.

Which language does the word "tattoo" itself come from?

"Tattoo" is derived from a Polynesian word meaning "to mark." We say "Polynesian" because the word "tatau" is shared by Tahitani, Samoan and several other languages that are generally similar to each other.

True or false: Nazi Germany was the only nation to use forcible tattooing for identification.

The tattooing of slaves and prisoners has been common throughout human history. In the Roman empire, slaves would be tattooed with a message "I am a runaway" in case they escaped. It's not only civilizations that have permitted this: Today, forcible tattooing of prostitutes, to connote "ownership," is a part of human trafficking.

Which of these actresses has the name "Norman" tattooed on her foot?

Aniston's tattoo is a tribute to her dog, who died in 2011. The other actresses listed above all have ink as well; Johansson's most recent is evidently a pattern of roses on her back.

Which of these is the most important qualification of a tattoo artist?

All of these things are of value in the operation of a tattoo parlor. However, your first priority should be not getting an infectious disease from the equipment. A good tattoo artist should be able to show you certification that indicates they are up-to date on their blood-borne pathogens training.

What is "flash"?

The designs that you see on parlor walls are called "flash," and sometimes they are copyrighted. They can serve as starting points for an individual design that the customer and artist think up together, or, if the customer doesn't want a personalized tattoo, they can choose a piece of flash outright.

What do good tattoo artists sterilize their equipment with?

An autoclave is a machine that sterilizes any kind of metal equipment that is used on the body. A combination of heat and pressure kills microbes that could, potentially, spread disease.

Which part of the skin is tattoo ink applied to?

The dermis is the layer of skin just under the outside one, the one we can touch. Tattooing the epidermis, or outer layer, would result in a tattoo that quickly faded away (like the temporary ones you get at fairs, for example).

Historically, an important use of sailors' tattoos was ... ?

Sailors likely got tattoos for the same variety of reasons that most other people do: bonding with a group, honoring a wife or family member, personal expression, and so on. But when sailors were swept overboard with no ID, or a ship went down, these tattoos were helpful in identifying the bodies and getting them home for a proper burial.

When did the use of tattoos in body identification cease to be a forensic practice?

Like dental work or surgical implants, tattoos are still useful to medical and law-enforcement personnel in identifying bodies at disaster sites, or when a dead body is found without identification. The usefulness of this technique depends on the state of the body. It's not very useful among burn victims.

One of these religions forbids tattooing. Which is it?

Torah forbids "making gashes in the flesh to honor the dead" (which, as we've noted elsewhere, is still a common reason to get a tattoo.) As with many prohibitions in Leviticus, this one seems to be intended to differentiate the Hebrews from the surrounding pagan peoples, who had traditions of memorial tattooing.

A rose tattoo on the chest is common in what organized crime syndicate?

Russian organized crime has perhaps the largest catalog of tattoo iconography. A rose on the chest often denotes a new recruit, while stars on the knees says that tattoed man "will kneel to no one."

What is behind the stigma against tattoos in Japan?

More specifically, tattoos were a sign of the yakuza, or the organized crime syndicate in Japan. Some yakuzas (as a noun, it can mean an individual member) have full-body tattoos. Japanese tattooing is known, overall, as "irezumi."

Which corporate logo was based on the chain's founder's tattoo?

The Macy's red star is one of the more recognizable logos in the world. Rowland Hussey Macy, the founder, used to be a sailor, and he had a tattoo of a red star on his hand.

Can tattooing be accidental?

This is also called "traumatic tattooing." When miners have accidents that break the skin, coal dust often gets inside, creating permanent dark markings. A similar thing can happen when a person is stabbed with a pen, and ink gets into the wound.

When Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder split up, how did he deal with his "Winona Forever" tattoo?

This is one of the cleverest reworkings of an unwanted tattoo that we've heard of. He evidently hasn't fallen out with his mother, as her "Betty Sue" tattoo, inside a heart shape, remains intact.

Tattoo ink will never contain what?

All of these potentially toxic heavy metals have been found in the lymph nodes of tattooed people at autopsy. Furthermore, a study by Denmark's Environmental Protection Agency found that 1 in 5 bottles of tattoo ink contained known carcinogens. Does this mean tattoos are unsafe? Probably not. It just puts a new light on "vegan-with-a-tattoo" syndrome.

Which of these U.S. states banned tattoos from the 1960s to the 2000s?

What did Oklahoma have against tattooing, which was banned from 1963 to 2006? We're not sure, but an Oklahoma lawmaker's opinion sheds an interesting light. In an article in the Tulsa World about legalization, a state representative said he worried that the economy would suffer, because of a general prejudice against tattoos. More tattooed people meant more unemployed people, in his eyes.

In gang/organized crime culture, what does a teardrop tattoo represent?

While some people will insist that the teardrop tattoo, usually just under the eye, always means the bearer has killed someone, it isn't necessarily true. Prison terms or deaths of a close friend are also reasons for this kind of marking.

Yantra tattooing is a practice started by which people?

More specifically, yantra tattooing began among the Khmer people of Southeast Asia. Yantra tattoos were believed to confer good luck and protect the bearer from evil. They are often geometric or symbolic designs.

What is the name for the instrument that makes the tattoo?

"Machine" is probably the most commonly used term, as well as the most generic. Some artists use the word "iron," and a few others "gun." However, the last term is increasingly unpopular with artists.

What is the coloring agent in a mehndi tattoo?

Technically, "mehndi tattoo" is redundant; mehndi is a form of tattooing created in India. In the West, it usually goes by the name "henna tattoo." We're glad it's not capsaicin ... that's the active ingredient in hot peppers, and would be quite painful

The modern tattoo machine was based on an invention by whom?

Edison invented an electric pen. This was the basis for the tattoo machine, which uses disposable needles to deposit ink on the dermis. Samuel O'Reilly patented an actual tattoo machine later, in 1891.

Victoria Beckham famously had the words "I am my beloved's and my beloved is mine" tattooed on her back. Where are they from?

This is Song of Solomon 6:3. Beckham has the words, in Hebrew, tattooed down her back from the nape of her neck. It is considerably faded now, suggesting that she might have had treatments to remove it.

Which of these is a form of tattooing?

Permanent cosmetics is a niche form of makeup, providing eyeliner or lipstick that will never fade or wash off. (Which must make the process of choosing the right color kind of scary!) At its core, it is a form of tattooing.

Tattoos can interfere with what medical practice?

There's a reason why people don't wear metal jewelry in MRI tubes -- the metal reacts to the powerful magnet. Metals in tattoo ink have the same effect. They can cause discomfort for the tattooed person, and they can also cause "interference" in the imaging.

Dermabrasion, salt abrasion and cryosurgery are all methods of what?

Lasers are becoming the most common way to remove tattoos, but the other three methods preceded that. In criminal subcultures, the methods are harsher. That is, people who wear gang tattoos without earning them, or who turn state's witness, often suffer having the tattoo cut or burned off their skin.

What is "black work"?

This is an introductory step in the process of tattooing. After creating the outline, an artist will fill in the color. Don't confuse this term with a "blackwork tattoo," which *is* a tattoo using only black ink, usually in bold geometric patterns.

Which of these is a NOT a purpose that tattoos have served, historically?

There are too many reasons behind this practice to list them all here. "Deviation from society's expectations" might sound like a modern one, but consider upper-class British women in the 19th century, who sometimes chose to have ink done for this reason.

One of these is NOT a reality show based on tattooing. Which is it?

Although "Just Tattoo of Us" sounds made up, it was a real show that debuted in 2017 on MTV. In it, couples (or pairs or friends) design a tattoo for each other, which is then applied at the Just Tattoo of Us parlor in London. Each person must get the tattoo designed for him or her, sight unseen. It's a leap of faith!

Which of these singers has a tattoo of a rose on her toe?

Singer and actress Moore has said about her decision to get inked, "It was my way of being a rebellious rock star. It didn't really work." We wish all celebrities had such disarming honesty!

Where does Christianity stand on tattooing?

Need to Know Dept: Many early Christians got cross tattoos until Pope Adrian I banned tattoos in the year 787. Some Christian denominations suggest that the prohibition in Leviticus 19 applies to today's Christians, not just the Hebrews of the time. Others have no strong feeling either way on tattooing.

Theodore Roosevelt was believed to have what inked on his chest?

It's said that both man's man "T.R." and his nephew Franklin Delano Roosevelt had this tattoo. It's fun to theorize that it was some sort of secret symbol, like you'd see in a movie ... but as far as we know, Roosevelts identified themselves by leading big, swaggering lives and changing the world, not by flashing secret tattoos.

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